Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Night Porter (1974) d. Liliana Cavani

Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter (1974) d. Liliana Cavani

Movie Review
The Night Porter (1974)
d. Liliana Cavani
Criterion Collection #59

   The Night Porter was a real Criterion Collection win. It had everything: 70s Vienna, Nazis, S&M sex, concentration camp flash backs and Charlotte Rampling giving an amazing performance.  According to the accompanying critical essay at the Criterion web site, this movie was controversial when it was released in 1974.  Critics accused it of exploiting the Holocaust.  It still packs a punch close to forty years later (in other news, 1974 was 39 years ago so old.)

Charlotte Rampling seen in flashback pre-Concentration Camp in The Night Porter

  Truth be told I wasn't that into S&M but I've had some interesting conversations with people and done a little research in the last several months, and now my thought is that if that makes someone happy, they should just do it and not ask too many questions about it.  Different strokes for different folks, am I right?

Charlotte Rampling, screen beauty.

     The over all impact of The Night Porter is "Last Tango in Paris meets the Holocaust" but I must confess I was absolutely riveted by The Night Porter.  Starting with the scenery, continuing with the costumes and performances, and ending with the emotional murder of the star-crossed lovers by the creepy former Nazi's who endlessly harass the couple, The Night Porter is a film that will stick with you and it really, really, stands out on a number of levels from the other Criterion Collection films I've taken in up to this point.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ben Hur (1880) by Lew Wallace

The famous chariot race from the 1959 film version of Ben Hur

Book Review
Ben Hur
by Lew Wallace

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12

  It's the 80s, ok? The 1880s?  Only 20 years until the 20th century.  Are you excited???? Can you feel it? Modernism is breathing hot breath on my neck- I can feel it coming.  Ben Hur these days is best known for the Chariot race from the 1959 film of the book, but the book itself is more then a chariot race.  Rather, its the full story of Judah Ben-Hur, the heir to the estates of a wealthy Jewish family, he is imprisoned and sent to the galleys after he accidentally dislodges a roof tile that happens to hit the Roman Governor in the head.

Charlton Heston playing Ben Hur in the 1959 film version of the 1880 novel.

  While rowing in a Roman galley he is befriended by a Roman officer, who decides to adopt him as his son and heir on his death bed.  Hur returns to Jerusalem, where he bests his rival in the famous chariot race and then spends the rest of the book hanging out with Jesus.

  It is hard to believe, but I think Ben Hur is the first example of what was to become a popular 20th century genre called "Sword & Sandals."  It's a genre made most famous by film, Spartacus & Ben Hur and the religious spin on Ben Hur hardly removes it from that category.  Wallace is sure to give ample description to the creature comforts (and discomforts) of live under the Romans in the Holy Land.  The overall impact is to set the scene as surely as Thomas Hardy sets the scene in his fictionalized English countryside of Wessex.

  The most unusual aspect of Ben Hur is that it represents the revival of the historical novel, a genre which, by 1880, had been out of fashion for more then a half century.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sanjuro (1962) d. Akira Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune, star of Sanjuro and Yojimbo

Movie Review
Sanjuro (1962)
 d. Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection #53

  Sometimes I'll be a reading a record review and the reviewer will call the record a "victory lap." That means the Artist who made the record has done well with a prior record and is following up that success with a product that is less ambitious, but features many of the same strengths (and songs) as the prior release.

  Sanjuro is like a victory lap for the immortal epic Yojimbo.  Sanjuro is the name of the Samurai/Ronin at the heart of Yojimbo, and Toshiro Mifune returns to reprise the role in this film. The critical essay by Michael Sragow that accompanies the Criterion Collection page for Sanjuro refers to it as the "sassy kid brother" of Yojimbo and I don't know why you would disagree with that statement.

Actor Toshiro Mifune


   It is a lesser achievement, it is sassier/funnier then Yojimbo (which is also dryly humorous in it's own way) and it does have many of the same pleasures as Yojimbo itself: Namely scenes of Sanjuro being clever interspersed with scenes of Sanjuro being brutal with a sword, and a ton of sneaking around in the bushes spying on people.  Seriously, if you had a yen for every time Sanjuro or another character in Yojimbo and Sanjuro peaks out of a knot hole, or a crack in the wall you'd have about a hundred yen because it seems to happen at least- at least- once every 5 minutes in both films.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

L'Assommoir by Emile Zola

Depiction of Gervaise Macquart, the tragic heroine of L'Assommoir by Emile Zola (1877)

Book Review
by Emile Zola
p. 1877

  Can you feel the approach of Modernism?  Zola could.  His novels were revolutionary in their frank depiction of the life of the contemporary working class- certainly not a scene that was frequently depicted in English novels of the same time period.  Unlike Russian novels of the 1870s, Zola's working class characters are not disaffected intellectuals slumming with they poors, they are just regular old working class folk.
Emile Zola apostle of literary modernism and the frank depiction of the industrial working class

  The movement of the novel down towards the gutter is almost synonymous with literary modernism, but in 1877 it was a controversial move, particularly when the working class folks in question were a bunch of failed, dissolute drunkards.  The title literally translates to "The Dram."  In my 2006 edition of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die they call it "Drunkard," and within the pages of the book L'Assommoir is the actual name of the bar where everyone drinks themselves to death.

   Zola's frank depiction of substance abuse, sexual subjects and physical abuse may have been controversial in its day but to a contemporary reader the sensation has been dulled by a century and a half of virulent preaching against the evils of substance abuse among the working (and wealthy.)  I glanced at an Amazon review that said L'Assommoir was to thank/blame at least partially for the Abolition movement.  Not sure whether that is a true fact or not, but certainly by 1877 we are well within the time frame when novelists wrote with the avowed purpose of drawing attention to a cause or causes.

   Gervaise Macquart is the center of L'Assommoir.  At the beginning, she is a young girl with two kids (she had the first at 15 if the translation is accurate) and a dissolute husband.  He dumps her and she finds another guy who is industrious.  They have a few good years together and she opens her own business as a laundress.  Then the second husband is injured when he falls from a roof. (he works on roofs)  After he recovers, he too becomes a drunkard.

   She keeps going but starts to lose the plot financially speaking, and then she too slips into drink, and everyone ends up insane, then dead.  Gooooood times.  At least L'Assommoir is short.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Orpheus and His Descent Into The Underworld

Orpheus descending into the underworld for Eurydice

Orpheus and His Descent Into the Underworld

  Main thing to understand about Orpheus is that he was a mythic musician, the first rock star, as it were.

Orpheus rescuing Eurydice

 The myth of Orpheus descending into the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice resonates through three thousand years of recorded human history.

 A good reason to derive artistic inspiration from an ancient myth is the fact that a larger portion of the potential audience is familiar with the source material and is therefore more inclined to like the work citing the myth.

  This idea of a famous musician going to hell to get back his woman is pretty powerful and resonant material.

Yojimbo (1961) d. Akira Kurosawa

in Akira Kurosawa's 1961 film Yojimbo, the aspect ratio is king.

Movie Review
Yojimbor (1961)
 d. Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection #52

  Not particularly looking forward to watching every g d Akira Kurosawa movie, because it seems like every one is in the Criterion Collection.  I know he's a master of world cinema but I just have never got into it.  But I still prefer watching Yojimbo to any of the about 50 Friends episodes I've got stacked up on my DVR.  I can't even contemplate the horror of watching 6 dvr'ed episodes of Friends in a row.  It's like thinking about cutting off a limb, for me anyway.

  At the same time I'm forced to admit that I can't exactly sit down and watch a two hour Akira Kurosawa picture straight, either.  What I end up doing is watching Yojimbo like it's an episodic tv show, with two half hour shows and a one hour finale over the course of 3 or 4 days.  That way I have time to reflect before the film is over and I'm sitting there going "Ugh so boring."

 I've never been a Kurosawa fan but that must have something to do with the fact that I haven't seen the Criterion Collection editions of this work. For example, I can remember watching a pan and scan version of Seven Samurais on PBS in high school and not getting what the deal was.  The deal is the way Kurosawa uses the wide screen format and translates the filimic components of a Western into his Japanese milleu.

  Many Americans who haven't seen Yojimbo have seen the Sergio Leon remake/adaptation from 1964, Fist Full of Dollars with Clint Eastwood.  Actually probably at this point most people who have heard of one have heard of the other- don't know that the cult of Clint Eastwood really exists these days.

Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro in Yojimbo (1961) d. Akira Kurosawa

The center of Yojimbo is the incomparable (from the criterion collection website) Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, the itinerant Samurai/Cowboy who strolls into the frontier town where two gangs are at war with one another.  Sanjuro plays both sides off against one another in his now classic, timeless, manner.  Like the Seijun Suzuki films, to watch Yojimbo is to watch a movie that has directly influenced a half century plus of successful Film makers.

 One  Criterion Collection specific observation I have after watching a dozen or so films is that the wide aspect ratio that characterizes Hollywood film was by no means standard on a world wide basis, particularly outside of America.  Yojimbo has an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 whereas Amarcord, a Fellini film shot in the early 1970s, only has 1.85:1.  The Most Dangerous Game, shot in the pre Code Hollywood era, is only 1.33:1.  Same thing with Diablolique, a French film shot in 1955- 1.33:1.   In fact, the only other film I can think of that shares the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of Yojimbo is Seijun Suzuki's movies.  The 2.35:1 ratio is actually even larger then the current Hollywood standard.  For example Robocop, shot in 1987, is 1.66:1.

 The 2.35:1 aspect ratio gives the filmmaker many possibilities in terms of composing the scene but it makes facial close ups awkward.  Not in the hands of Kurosawa, but it's easy to see how a facial close up in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio would actually cut off the top and bottom of the face.  But landscapes... or "long" shots- beautiful.

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